Prospects for the Israeli Left 2019

Presentation to Ideas for Freeedom, London, 22 June 2019

What are the prospects for the Israeli Left today?

My short answer is: bleak.

In Israel’s first elections following independence in 1949, over 50% of the votes were cast for the two socialist parties, Mapai and Mapam, which won the majority of seats in the Knesset.

Those parties had also dominated the country in the decades leading up to independence, and over the course of many years had set up the kibbutzim, moshavim, trade unions, newspapers, publishing houses, and militias — notably the Palmach — which eventually morphed into the Israel Defence Forces.

Tel Aviv, May Day 1947. Note the slogans – ‘brotherhood of nations’, ‘unity of workers’, ‘solidarity with Arab workers in Palestine’ – none of could be used today by the Israeli Left.

After holding power for three decades, the Left lost it in 1977 to Menachem Begin’s Likud — and then recaptured it in 1992 under the leadership of Yitzhak Rabin. That 1992 victory, which resulted in the Oslo accords, was the last time we saw the dominance of the electoral machine of the Israeli left.

Seventy years after independence, in the elections held earlier this year, those two parties (now called Labour and Meretz) won just 8% of the vote. Including the votes of the Arab parties — some of which cannot be considered as Left in any sense — the total reaches about 16%.

Never before has the Left been smaller, and never has it had a worse electoral result than it had in April this year. And there is no guarantee that they will do any better in the upcoming elections in September — though the decision of the parties of the Arab bloc to unite is certainly going to help a bit.

To sum up, the parties of the Israeli Left have gone from complete dominance of national politics to total irrelevance in a single generation.

Beyond electoral collapse

But it’s not just the spectacular electoral collapse that matters.

There’s been a nearly total disappearance of the political culture in which the Israeli Left thrived.

A little more than twenty years ago, three of the daily newspapers in Israel were socialist — most notably the Histadrut trade union federation’s Davar and Mapam’s Al Hamishmar.

Both had existed for many decades and both were shut down in the 1990s. I wrote for Al Hamishmar for a number of years on international affairs. It closed in 1995, and Davar closed a year later.

Only one ostensibly socialist daily newspaper survives in Israel today — Al-Ittihad, the Arabic language newspaper of the Communist Party. It is the only daily newspaper in Arabic in the country.

The newspapers in Israel today are all in decline, and one of the most popular, the free newspaper Yisrael Hayom, is Bibi Netanyahu’s house organ. The only political parties with daily newspapers today are the thriving religious parties, including the ultra-Orthodox ones — which does indicate the importance, even today, of a daily political newspaper.

More important than the decline of the Left press is the collapse of the Histadrut trade union federation, which was until the early 1990s one of the most powerful trade unions in world, with Israel having a very high rate of trade union density.

Thanks to changes introduced by the Labour Party, particularly with regard to national health insurance, hundreds of thousands of workers quit the Histadrut in the 1990s, and according to OECD data, trade union density in Israel fell by 50% in the first years of this century. The once-mighty Histadrut has now been reduced to a rump.

There are a number of smaller unions doing good work, including the Workers Advice Center Ma’an, Koach La’ovdim, and others. But the organised labour movement in Israel is today a spent force, and no longer has a connection to the political parties of the Left. Its former leader Avi Nissenkorn abandoned the Labour Party earlier this year and went on to become a leading figure in the new centrist party headed by Benny Gantz.

Where we stand now

In the face of the collapse and imminent disappearance of the organised Left — especially the Labour Party — the response of the Left’s leadership is to do … more of the same. This is where my questioning of the two-state solution comes from.

For the last two decades or so, the Israeli Left used the slogan of ‘separation’ as a way to reach out to right-wing Israeli Jews who didn’t like, or feared, Palestinians, and for whom the slogan of ‘peace’ was anathema.

One recent media campaign put the two alternatives before the public as ‘annexation’ or ‘separation’ — peace not being considered as an option.

But it didn’t work. It didn’t stop the Left’s decline.

It turns out that Israeli Jewish voters who don’t believe in peace are more likely to vote for a right-wing party like Likud than for tough retired generals who lead parties of the Left or center.

For a whole range of reasons, the Israeli Left appears to be in terminal decline, and instead of looking for new ideas, it repeats the same tired old slogans which convince increasingly smaller numbers of people.

The change that is needed

The only hope is not a change in the leadership of the Labour Party — though that is desperately needed — but a change in the message.

Instead of advocating for ‘separation’ and playing on the fears, the often racist fears, of Arabs, the Left should proudly advocate for peace and co-existence. When the daily newspaper of Mapam, Al Hamishmar, still existed, it had on its masthead the slogan: For socialism, Zionism and the brotherhood of peoples.

Not separation, but brotherhood.

Instead of chasing after the votes of affluent liberal Israelis, mostly in Tel Aviv, the Israeli Left must rediscover its connection to the working class — meaning the largely Sefardic Jewish communities, the Arabs, the new waves of Jewish immigrants including the Russians and Ethiopians, and the many thousand of migrant workers now living in the country, though the last of these do not have the right to vote.

Those communities have been abandoned, given up to the parties of the right.

I believe that they can be reached only if the Israeli Left embraces an explicitly socialist agenda, an agenda that speaks to their need for social justice, for greater equality, for a future filled with hope.

That has been proven by the success of Senator Bernie Sanders in the US, and to a degree by the success of Jeremy Corbyn here. Without a sharp turn to the left, there is no future for Meretz and the Israel Labour Party.

In my view, a new Israeli Left will be born, just as strong trade unions will reappear, because these things are needed.

But there are no short-cuts, and this will be a long and difficult struggle.